Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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I no longer blog on this site. You can now find me, my general blogs, and the work I am doing researching my forthcoming book on imagination, on my new blog.

26 Aug 2014

Why Transition needs a sense of wonder


It’s dusk.  The family who arrived earlier in the day and pitched their tent next to ours have just asked us if we’d like to join them for a short walk to see “something magical”.  We walk in the near-darkness down a grassy track to a lane with hedgerows on either side, the sea away to our right and the lights of Plymouth giving the clouds ahead of us an apricot-coloured underbelly, until something catches our eye.  Two dots of greenish light in the hedge.  Glowworms.  

I struggle to remember the last time I saw a glowworm.  A memory awakens that it was when I was a child, on a family holiday to Devon, when my parents took my sister and I out down a similar lane at dusk with a similar sense of reverence.  As we approach the tiny lights, the group of about 10 of us, more than half of us under 12, fall into silence.  The glowworms aren’t perturbed by our presence, they just keep glowing.  Our guides were right about the “magical”. Nobody speaks, other than the odd “wow”. 

I find myself feeling delighted and thrilled and honoured to be standing there. I find that these two pinpricks of light are acting as a powerful kind of reminder.  A reminder of amazing things I’ve seen during my life when I’ve seen nature at its most alive, its most unexpected, its most beautiful.  I am reminded of the fireflies I saw (occasionally) when I lived in Italy, the closest thing to seeing fairies I could imagine.  Watching the seal that comes up the River Dart to hunt for fish toss salmon into the air. The owl that flew past me in total silence as I stood hoeing in my garden in Ireland. The snow monkeys I saw in the forest in northern India, wise old men of the trees.  The thirty minutes I spent spellbound by a river in Wiltshire watching a kingfisher fly in and out in search of fish, his dazzling turquoise feathers glinting in the sun. Moments that I recognise, as I stand in that quiet lane, that I experience less and less as more and more of my life is spent in front of a computer.  

I subsequently discuss it with Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, in an interview to be published here later this month.  I tell him the story of our glowworm moment, and how magical it was and ask him, from his perspective, what it was that was happening in that moment.  “Wonder”, he tells me.  It is in those moments of wonder that we really connect to the world, that our senses are heightened, that our inquisitiveness and creativity are at their most vibrant.  In Last Child in the Woods he quotes Rachel Carson as saying: 

“Those who contemplate the beauty of the earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts”. 

And what could be more useful for Transition groups in search of “reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts” than looking more deeply into the question of how Transition initiatives might weave that sense of wonder for the natural world into what they do.  It brings to mind Wendell Berry’s poem The Peace of Wild Things:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things 
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

So our theme for this month is ‘Making Space for Nature’.  We will be framing the month around five key questions.  Might a separation from Nature be at the root of our problems? Is it possible to make a healthy culture without connection to Nature? What are the impacts of losing that connection? Why is contact with Nature essential to raising healthy children?  And finally, what does making space for Nature bring to a Transition group? 

We’ll be talking to George Monbiot about his book Feral, to Richard Louv, to ecopsychologist Mary-Jayne Rust, to writer Caspar Walsh and to permaculture activist Pandora Thomas, and quite possibly a couple more too.  We will also be hearing from some Transition initiatives about how they create space for nature in what they do and the impacts they see it having on people.  We’d love to hear from you too if you have something you’d like to add to that. 

For me, one of my ways of making space for nature is drawing.  I don’t tend to draw cities, roads, buildings.  When I have time to draw, I tend to head with my pens, pencils and paper to the woods, the fields, the rivers.  Vincent Van Gogh once said “if you truly love nature, you will find beauty everywhere”.  He might also have said “if you truly observe nature, you will find beauty everywhere”.  

It is the process of sitting and really looking at what’s in front of you, looking at the same tree for several hours, how the light changes on it, how shapes relate to each other, sitting in the quiet just watching, that really creates that space for me.  Here are a few of my holiday drawings from the last month:

View from campsite towards the Plymouth estuary.  Glowworms spotted about 200 yards behind the tree on the left.

Long grasses and scrub.

The family tent in the evening sun.

A quick study of elder leaves and pennywort growing below. Crantock, Cornwall.

In my visits to Transition initiatives, I see time and again projects that are making space for nature in the local community. Whether they are Community Supported Agriculture projects that connect people to what becomes ‘their’ farm, community gardens on train platforms, in corners of parks, in school grounds, getting people out on bikes, spending time outdoors socially, all of it creates opportunities for wonder.  They are directly responding to the trend identified by the great ecologist Aldo Leopold in his A Sand County Almanac in 1949:

“Our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land.  Your true modern is separated from the land by many middlemen, and by innumerable physical gadgets.  He has no vital relation to it; to him it is the space between cities on which crops grow.  Turn him loose for a day on the land, and if the spot does not happen to be a golf links or a ‘scenic’ area, he is bored stiff”.  

Transition does a great job of addressing this, finding creative, possibility-shifting, community-building ways of getting people together, out of doors and away from their computers.  For example, on July 26th in London, Crystal Palace Transition Town, together with a couple of other local organisations, opened ‘The Sensible Garden’, named after local resident and punk legend Captain Sensible (of The Damned and also a solo artist).  The group had taken an unloved corner, covered in rubbish and old mattresses, harnessed the ‘power to convene’ that Transition does so well, and transformed the space into a garden. Here’s a film about the day:


To return to our glowworm story, as it turned out, our guides were, as well as introducing us to a bit of magic, also trying to get on our good side in the knowledge that people are less likely to be grumpy when your kids wake them up running around and shouting at 6am if you’ve met them before. It was a good trade-off though.  

I’ll leave the last word to Aldo Leopold, who wrote:

“There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.  These essays are the delights and dilemmas of one who cannot.  Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them.  Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free.  For us of the minority, the opportunity to see geese is more important than television, and the chance to find a pasque-flower is a right as inalienable as free speech”.  

 Enjoy the month.